Grinnell is hugged by board Vice President Brian Miksic.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It's been a decade since Judith Grinnell floated the then-fantastical notion that the Hoosic River could be safely released from some of its concrete coffin.
A decade since she and her dedicated advocates inspired a "leap of faith" that joined community leaders and politicians, businesses and residents, recreational enthusiasts and ecologists.
A decade since Grinnell's vision has become a $30 million project ready to take its first steps to reality.
And after a decade, the Hoosic River Revival's founder says she's "walking away smiling. I really am."
Grinnell and some of the organization's longest-serving members passed the torch on Wednesday to a new board and new Executive Director Jason LaForest with a mission to continue their work. New elected officers are Marlene Middleton as president, Brian Miksic as vice president, Janette Kessler as treasurer and Roberta Lamb as clerk.
"I think it's really a sign of our board's confidence in Jason that we're actually having so many people leaving," said board President Annie Valk, at the organization's annual meeting, held at The Green at 85 Main. "Because Judy had delayed until we had a sense the board was stable.
"I know this is going to be a tremendous loss of wisdom and expertise around the table but we really see the organization has been coalescing and building strength and getting stronger all of the time."
Grinnell, who's been the face of HRR for so many years, said she'd wanted to retire a few years ago. The project is entering a new phase and needs more than a cheerleader, fundraiser and speaker, she said.
The engine that could needs an engineer.
"I feel we have a very capable young man who has all the skills, not just organizational skills but interpersonal skills, political acumen, it is not just a scientific project — it is a political project, it is a financial project," she said. "He has the knowledge and the experience and the personality to do it."
LaForest he'd never seen an organization that had done so much with a few people and a dedicated board.
"So that's really a testament to Judy and Al [Bashevkin] as interim director," he said. "And it makes everything I'm doing now easy.
The vision began with invitations that attracted about 30 people and was inspired by Grinnell's visit to the San Antonio River Walk.
"Two people whose names I picked out of the paper because they were working with the state to take down a dam in Clarksburg," Grinnell recalled. "They were the only ones who knew anything about rivers. ...
"When we started, other than some of us seeing San Antonio, most of the people in that room had not seen a river restored and what it could do to change a city."
The revival had coalesced around Grinnell's "kitchen cabinet" of Northern Berkshire Community Coalition director Al Bashevkin, environmental professor Elena Traister, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Thomas Matuszko and Cindy Delpapa of the state's Riverways Program.
Four years ago, the effort received $500,000 toward design and planning for Phase 1 on the South Branch along Noel Field Athletic Complex, with millions more earmarked for further progress.
The project has been delayed by the planning for the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, which has an option to purchase the 10-acre former Sons of Italy property that could affect the river plans.
"As currently designed both EMRCA and HRR could proceed" states HRR's annual report. LaForest has been talking with the museum board, which is worried the river restoration could affect its $65 million plan, and says he will continue to work toward an agreement that will allow the release of more state money.
"It's time for the railroad museum to share that land just a little bit," Grinnell said. "We've been good neighbors waiting for two years and those years are up in January."
Valk is hoping to have some "tangible results" for the community and to be visible and ensure the group's addressing people's questions and concerns.
"I think in 2019 something's going to happen one way or another," she said. "That the model railroad folks will either purchase their land or not. Either way, we're going to be part of that decision on how the land is going to be used."
Valk moved here from Providence, R.I., four years ago and got persuaded by Grinnell. It wasn't hard, she already knew what a revitalized river could do for the community because she has firsthand experience with Providence's popular WaterFire river sculpture and the river walk.
"It's really an important part of the city and how people use space there," she said. "When I moved here I had that vision in mind and I'd like to see that in North Adams."
The organization bid farewell to Grinnell, Traister, Lauren Stevens, Jake Laughner, Fred Moran and Francesca Shanks. New board members are Peter Breen, Janette Kessler, Glenda Matos-Carter, Kim Perry, Richard Tavelli, and Peter Wheeler.
The gathering also watched two videos about the revival, one by WGBY's "Connecting Point" and another by students in a class at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, that explained the revival's goal and what it hoped to achieve.
Grinnell thanks a long list of people, businesses and organizations that had provided moral, political and financial support over the years. And, after 10 years, she's sure her baby is in good hands.
"The North Adams community is committed to the development of a clean, accessible, flood-controlled river that will enhance the city's recreational, cultural economic vitality," she said.
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